Dispatches from Council, March 3 2014

Community Advisory Council Meeting



I think before I talk about how the meeting went down it would be helpful if I laid out the basic parameters of the Community Advisory Councils, before I recount the discussion around them.


The first thing that is important is that there are TWO CANVASSING STEPS. The charter mandates that to actually create the Community Advisory Council for a district, signatures must be collected to establish the entity itself. Currently the number of signatures required is 10% of the total general election votes for the district. The number is well over 1,000 signatures in some cases. That signature collection is merely to set the councils up then the individual candidates have to gather nominating signatures to put their names on the ballot. There are TWO ROUNDS OF CANVASSING that need to occur.


The meeting opened with a discussion of the charter and the limitations and prescriptions that the charter itself gave to the creation of Community Advisory Councils in the first place.


THE QUESTION OF PETITIONS- The first discussion point of the day centered around petitions. The basic question is whether the petitions that have already been circulated (those attempting to create the CACs) can be counted officially and legally. Under Michigan Election Law, there are certain requirements for any official nominating petition (font, size of paper, etc.). The Council agreed that it will draw up, print, and distribute official petitions. The question is if a petition that has already been drawn up and circulated fits the requirements can it be counted? The confusion also stems from the distinction between “nominating” petitions i.e. the ones the candidates will get to secure the signatures to put their names on the ballot and the “creating” petitions i.e. the ones that will actually establish CACs. Long story short, the council left open some degree of flexibility for “homemade” petitions that fit legal requirements. The confusion (also in some part caused by the Clerk’s Office) really underscores how many kinks have to be worked out in this process. There were several groups represented in the audience, attempting to make public comment, that had created and distributed petitions and were vocally angry about the possibility they might not be valid. They were arguing that they had been trying their hardest to speed up a process that showed every sign of slowing down. And while one can argue about the merits of having a bunch of non-standardized petitions floating around, it’s hard not to understand the frustration these groups feel after being told that many of the hours they have already put in trying to get these things set up, were wasted, as the signatures they gathered are invalid. It’s a reminder that every delay, every piece of misinformation, is a delay to an already drawn-out process.



THE QUESTION OF ELECTIONS- The next question that arose related to the charter’s direction on the Community Advisory Council elections. The charter mandates that after a Community Advisory Council ordinance is passed at the “next election in the city of Detroit” the members for those councils would be chosen. Now, most folks had been assuming that “next election” meant the November General Election, but the Law department brought up that legally that wording could be construed to mean the primary as it is technically the “next election” in the City of Detroit. The Law department is very cautious about stuff like this as they want to protect themselves from being sued and want (understandably) to make sure there can be no challenge to the election itself. If that interpretation was deemed valid, James Tate argued for trying to pull of maneuver that would see the pass the CAC bill after the primary, while soliciting signatures to create the CACs in the months prior. If that sounds incredibly complicated, it’s because it is incredibly complicated. And it all stems from a little bit of non-specific drafting in the charter. The consensus seemed to be reached that in eyes of the Clerk’s office and therefore the council, the primary constitutes a “nominating process” not an “election and so the language “next election” refers to the general election. Hopefully this will not become an issue moving forward, and CAC elections can be held in November as everyone assumed they would be.


THE TIMING QUESTION - As the discussion became more and more convoluted, Member Benson cut in with the most important question of the day, “What is the timing on when candidates must file their nominating petitions to be on the ballot for the November election?” The answer: JULY 22nd. Member Benson’s question refocused the conversation in a serious way and made folks realize that we are less than 150 days before all signatures must be collected. The danger that CACs will not be instituted this year is real.


THE NOMINATION QUESTION- The Council then turned to the notion of council making appointments to the CACs of a high school advocate and a senior advocate. Most members of the council, along with most of us, had assumed that the council would appoint these two advisory council members. As that it was the charter language seems to suggest. But again the charter’s drafting was “up to interpretation.” The Law Department said that the charter’s wording left open the possibility of the council allowing the CACs to pick the senior and youth advocates. Member Tate and Member Casteneda-Lopez made impassioned arguments for leaving the powers of appointment in the hands of the CACs. Member Tate argued that wanted folks who did not think like him giving him input. Member Casteneda-Lopez argued that it felt “paternalistic” for the council to have that type of influence on the composition of the councils. Member Benson countered with the argument that the community advisory councils were intended to exist with a strong council influence. The connection between the district councilman or woman and the council would be strengthened by the councilors’ having appointees on the advisory councils. The question is still outstanding.


THE SIGNATURE QUESTION-  The last question of the day was where to set the bar for nominating signatures. The current proposal is 300, but Member Benson proposed lowering it, especially in light of the time frame. There was some suggestion that a low-bar signatures could lead to a huge proliferation of candidates, but Member Benson argued that as recent primaries suggest (160+ candidates last August) a higher number of signatures does not preclude a large field of candidates. The eventual consensus was somewhere between 150 and 200. The other question was whether the “creation” signatures (creating the CACs in each district) could be gathered at the same time as nominating signatures for the individual candidates. The Law department was not entirely comfortable with that arrangement and the question is still outstanding.


The Community Advisory Councils are clearly still a work in progress. Without leadership from council and a strong push from the community we could end up with weak, improperly elected CACs or perhaps no CACs at all. JULY 22nd, the date by which candidates must file their nominating signatures, looms large. We need to get to work. 

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